By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

With the search for a coaching staff mostly complete, the Rams have begun to turn their attention to the next and perhaps most important step in the process, the team’s roster.

The NFL scouting combine begins next week and free agency follows the week after but there are a number of important decisions to be made in the next few weeks.

That process begins this week as teams were allowed to begin making roster moves Monday and the deadline to place a franchise or transition tag on a team’s own free agents is Feb. 19.

As of now, the Rams have 18 players scheduled to hit the free agent market when it opens on Feb. 27. Of those 18, 15 are unrestricted free agents that can sign anywhere they choose once the market begins.

Out of that group, there are two players that stand above the rest in terms of importance for the Rams and those two players could complicate issues this week heading toward the tag deadline.

Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe and cornerback Ron Bartell enjoyed breakout seasons in 2008 and form the foundation of what could be an emerging young secondary. Of course, those breakout seasons just so happened to coincide with their first opportunity to become unrestricted free agents.

Because of the myriad changes in the front office, including the recent hiring of Kevin Demoff as Executive Vice President of Football Operations/Chief Operating Officer, and the hiring of a new coaching staff, the Rams have had little time to focus on personnel.

At last month’s Senior Bowl, coach Steve Spagnuolo never made it out of his hotel room and general manager Billy Devaney only did on the final day of practices.

Early last week, the focus shifted and Devaney has bunkered down to join new Director of Pro Personnel Mike Williams and his staff focus on free agency.

Negotiations with Bartell and Atogwe have yet to take off but it’s believed they will heat up this week.

Signing that duo is one of the team’s top priorities but it could become a difficult situation should the Rams have to make a decision on placing the franchise tag on one or the other.

For salary cap purposes – the Rams are believed to have around $14 million in cap space – tagging Atogwe would be more beneficial than Bartell. The franchise number for a safety is about $6.3 million while the number for a cornerback is almost $10 million.

Of course, considering that the Rams must budget a little less than half of that open space to the rookie class that must be signed after April’s NFL Draft, there won’t be much wiggle room to re-shape the roster with the cap situation as it stands.

That means Devaney and Spagnuolo will have some difficult choices to make in the coming days in terms of finding ways to create cap room.

One way to create some serious room would be the release of veteran star receiver Torry Holt and/or left tackle Orlando Pace. Releasing both would almost double the team’s salary cap room but would also create additional holes in the roster.

Another option that could be explored is a re-working of the remainder of that duo’s contracts.

Holt is entering the final season of his contract and is scheduled to count a little more than $10 million against this year’s cap. Pace has three years left on his contract and is scheduled to count about $9 million against the cap.

There has been precedent set in recent seasons for creating cap space by re-working contracts. Last season, the Rams came to an agreement with defensive end Leonard Little that freed up about $3 million toward last season’s salary cap.

One other factor that comes into play with the likes of Pace and Holt is the potential of creating bigger holes at positions that already require attention. Pace was probably the team’s most consistent lineman last season and earned the Ed Block Courage Award from his teammates for his efforts.

While Pace is no longer the dominant force he once was, he proved he still has some gas in the tank. Without him, the Rams would be left with Alex Barron (entering the final year of his contract) as the only true offensive tackle under contract heading into next season.

Pace said in December, he couldn’t worry much about what the future will hold considering all that he’s seen in his 12 years in the league.

“If I can get through the day and be fine then I can’t worry about what they are going to do in the future,” Pace said. “I really can’t worry about it.”

Holt had one of his least productive seasons in 2008, finishing with 64 catches for 796 yards and three touchdowns. Holt is also advancing in age but by most accounts can still make plays. Without him, the Rams would have an extremely young receiver corps led by second-year player Donnie Avery.

In a December interview, Holt said he believed he was still plenty capable of performing.

“I can play the game for as long as I want to play the game,” Holt said at the time. “That’s the way I feel. You know how I have always felt on that. I was never a guy that talked about playing the game for 15, 16, 17 odd years but the way I feel right now as far as my body and the mental aspect and what I am doing on the football field and the practice field, I feel like I can play for as long as I want to play.”

Aside from those two big names, there are other avenues the Rams can and will likely explore to get some salary cap relief before free agency opens.

Safety Corey Chavous ($1.2 million), linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa ($2.5 million), quarterback Trent Green ($1.3 million) and defensive tackle Claude Wroten ($726,000) are other names that could come into the conversation as the Rams search to find ways to save money.

In addition to who might be going, the Rams have some other free agents in addition to Atogwe and Bartell that decisions will need to be made on whether they return

Defensive end Victor Adeyanju and guard Richie Incognito are restricted free agents that the Rams will need to extend tender offers to retain or potentially sign to long term contracts.

Among some of the notables that are unrestricted free agents at receiver Dane Looker, returner Dante Hall, center Brett Romberg, tackle Adam Goldberg, cornerback Fakhir Brown and defensive tackle La’Roi Glover.

Rams Free Agents

FS Oshiomogho Atogwe (UFA)
CB Ron Bartell (UFA)
DE Victor Adeyanju (RFA)
RB Travis Minor (UFA)
WR Dante Hall (UFA)
WR Dane Looker (UFA)
C Nick Leckey (UFA)
C Brett Romberg (UFA)
T Adam Goldberg (UFA)
G Richie Incognito (RFA)
G Mark Setterstrom (RFA)
T Brandon Gorin (UFA)
DE Eric Moore (UFA)
DT La’Roi Glover (UFA)
LB Gary Stills (UFA)
CB Fakhir Brown (UFA)
CB Jason Craft (UFA)
CB Ricky Manning Jr. (UFA)

Free Agent Dates to Know

Feb. 19 – Franchise/Transition tag deadline

Feb. 26 – The last day teams can make tender offers to restricted free agents

Feb. 27 – Free agency begins

Franchise and Transition Tag Numbers

The quarterback franchise number is $14.65 million and the transition figure is $12.44 million.

The wide receiver franchise number is $9.88 million and the transition figure is $8.39 million.

The offensive line franchise number is $8.45 million and the transition figure is $7.74 million.

The running back franchise number is $6.62 million and the transition figure is $5.92 million.

The tight end franchise number is $4.46 million and the transition figure is $4.07 million.

The defensive end franchise number is $8.99 million and the transition figure is $7.78 million.

The defensive tackle franchise number is $6.06 million and the transition figure is $5.45 million.

The linebacker franchise number is $8.3 million and the transition figure is $7.48 million.

The safety franchise number is $6.34 million and the transition figure is $5.13 million.

The cornerback franchise number is $9.96 million and the transition figure is $8.37 million.

And the franchise number for a punter/kicker is $2.48 million and $2.26 million for a transition figure.

2009 NFL Restricted Free Agent Compensation

First and Third Round compensation - $2.792 million offer to a player requires any team trying to sign the player to trade a first and third round choice in this year’s NFL Draft.

First round compensation - $2.198 million offer to a player requires any team trying to sign the player to trade a first-round choice in this year’s NFL Draft.

Second round compensation - $1.545 million offer to a player requires any team trying to sign the player to trade a second round choice in this year’s NFL Draft.

Original round compensation - $1.01 million offer to a player requires any team trying to sign the player to trade a draft pick commensurate with where said player was originally drafted.

(Note: Making a qualifying offer allows the original team matching rights on any outside contract offers. Should the original team decline to match the offer, compensation is then awarded)

Free Agent Terms & Definitions (source: KFFL)

There are five types of free agents, with each type having different abilities when it comes to being able to move around the league. Those five types are as follows:

- Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) - Players with four years or more of NFL experience who can sign with their own team or any other team in the NFL. If they leave their previous team the team that signs them can do so without having to award the previous team compensation.

- Restricted Free Agents (RFA) - Players with three years of NFL experience. Like an unrestricted free agent they are free to negotiate with any team however the current team has the right to match any offer and if they do so they retain the rights to the player. Failure to meet the offer means the player is awarded to the new team but the new team must give the old team compensation in the form of draft picks.

- Exclusive-Rights Free Agents (ERFA) - Players with two or fewer years of experience who have no outside negotiating power. Their rights belong to their previous club provided they are made a minimum qualifying offer.

- Franchise Free Agents (FFA) - Unrestricted free agents who have been designated as the "Franchise" player. Current team has the right to match any offer. If they refuse they are given compensation by the new team the player has signed to play for.

- Transitional Free Agents (TFA) - Players who can negotiate with any club but current team retains matching rights.





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